DHAKA, Bangladesh — “Tear gas, rubber bullets, baton charging – and that too inside a hostel! I’ve never seen such violence from the police!” Ila, a final year student at the Dhaka University said.
She was describing for The Diplomat the violent police action against students on the night of April 8, 2018, when Dhaka police decided to storm the campus of Dhaka University and “teach agitating students a lesson.”
The police have refused to divulge the exact number of people injured and/or detained. But according to unconfirmed estimates by organizers, the number had run into tens of thousands by the afternoon of April 11.
In addition to blocking roads, students pelted riot police with bricks and in some places lit fires to block their approach.
At Dhaka University alone, over 100 students were injured – mostly by rubber bullets and baton charges.
Bangladesh has an intricate and overarching structure of quotas in government jobs meant to favor disadvantaged sections like tribal groups, minorities, and the disabled. In addition to that, there is a reservation of places for the families and descendants of those who fought for independence during the 1971 War of Liberation.
Altogether, the quotas take up nearly 56 percent of all government jobs.
Although this has, for a long time, been a matter of unease within the student community, no real agitation had taken shape until recently. Things changed when students of public colleges from different parts of the country decided to form a coalition called the Chhatra Odhikar Songrokkhon Parishad (Council of Organizations for the Protection of Student Rights) and started organizing public protests.
Even then, the movement remained divided along political and tactical lines.
Bangladesh’s student politics is heavily divided into partisan camps. And 2018 being an election year, unlike the center-right Jatiotabadi Chhatro Dal and the Communists, the Bangladesh Chattra League – the student wing of the ruling Awami League party – has been treading cautiously. Some leaders of the Chattra League had even opposed the movement, saying it was a ploy to destabilize the government.
Political goals remained divided as well. While one group favored the complete abolition of all quotas, the other demanded reform in the system and the reduction of the percentage of spots taken by quotas.
“We’re not against disadvantaged people getting a leg up,” explained Liton Nandi, a student activist. “But these quotas are discriminatory. Due to the quota system, 56 percent of the jobs are set aside for 5 percent of the country’s population. Quotas can’t be more than what’s available to the mainstream!”
Not everyone agrees to this line.
Ila, for example, said: “I’m a woman from a remote region and still I’ve made it to Dhaka University on my own. I don’t need anyone’s mercy to achieve what I can. I don’t need quotas.”
Moreover, students of Bangladesh’s private universities — whose campuses are much less politically active than government ones — stayed out of the movement.
But the strong-arm tactics of the police have now brought the differing factions together.
“This is no more about this university or that,” a student of the private Daffodil University of Dhaka said as his fellow students took hold of an arterial road in the heart of the city. “The student community is under attack from the government and that is unacceptable to us.”
Within 24 hours of the police action, the movement spread out of Dhaka and students across several districts blocked highways and brought traffic to a standstill.
In terms of the sheer numbers of people participating in the strikes and demonstrations, the resulting movement has become the biggest wave of protests that the incumbent prime minister Sheikh Hasina has faced since the Shahbag Square movement of 2013.
“This university has a history of vibrant political activism,” Dr. Ziaur Rahman remarked when walking down the slogan-splattered halls of the Arts Faculty building. “Protests are a part of the culture here. This one is no exception.”
In 2013, in a protest strikingly similar to the present one, students and youth had gathered at the famous Shahbag Square near Dhaka University, demanding that the Sheikh Hasina government put members of Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party – the Jamaat-e Islami (JeI) – on trial for war crimes.
During the 1971 Liberation War, the JeI actively cooperated with Pakistani forces and committed several acts of wanton violence and torture against pro-freedom groups like the Awami League and religious minorities. A war crimes tribunal was opened under independent Bangladesh’s first government led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. But given the considerable sway the JeI held over electoral politics and the heavy negotiations which Pakistan did on their behalf, the tribunal was done away with and a general amnesty given to all accused members.
In the post-1971 years of military and civilian rule under the center-right Bangladesh National Party, the JeI flourished both as a political party and in terms of spawning a multitude of affiliated organizations that worked in everything from health to banking onto education and news media.
In 2008, Sheikh Hasina had gone to the polls promising to reopen the defunct war crimes tribunal – an act that won her the support of the left and Communist blocs and led to a landslide victory.
But when it came to actually carrying out her promise, Hasina faltered.
The discontent against this inaction had been simmering below the surface but didn’t find concrete political expression until the students of Dhaka University decided to take control of Shahbag Square.
Despite uncertain beginnings, violent counterprotests by Islamists and the police’s attempt to remove the protesters led the students to close ranks. The movement quickly gathered mass thereafter and before long threatened to destabilize the Hasina government if she failed to act against the Islamists.
But where Shahbag was about forcing Hasina to take action against an already unpopular political entity, the quota movement has the prime minister herself in its crosshairs. The initial response from the government has only worsened her standing among the protesters.
Referring to the protests, Matia Chowdhary, a senior member of the ruling party and minister for agriculture, said: “Will the children and successors of those who risked their lives to fight for independence not get an opportunity? Will the children of Razakars [a paramilitary group created by Pakistan to oppose Bangladesh’s independence] get the chance?”
The statement caused a furor among the protesters. Students demanded an immediate apology from the minister and refused negotiations with the government until that happened.
“The government can’t be reckless,” Baki Billah, a leader of the youth wing of the Bangladeshi Communist Party, said when talking to this reporter. “It needs to really take a fresh look into the quota system. The government needs to hear what the students and job seekers have to say.”
While Obaidul Quader, a minister in the Hasina government, struck a conciliatory note and asked a delegation of the protesters to allow the government until May 7 to decide the future course of action, the prime minister herself seemed less willing to concede space for negotiations.
In her first public statement about the agitation, speaking to the parliament, Hasina said: “Enough of these protests; they need to return to their classes. If no one wants quotas, there will be none. They can take civil service exams and get jobs on their merit.”